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Two Moments of Invention
A short story from Chester Burton 'Cheeseburger' Brown
Two Moments of Invention, a scifi short story by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming

PLEASE NOTE: This story contains some profanity, mild violence, and an adult situation. Reader discretion is advised.


There are a hundred billion things for sale, and everybody is selling them. There are a hundred million brands to know, and everybody hears them. If you say the right word at the right time, this dying world can be your oyster.

Everything we buy has eyes, because we're all looking out for one another. That's co-operation. Everywhere we go has ears, because whispers and secrets are the holdings of those who would harm us. That's security. No one is alone, and no one is afraid.

And sure, there's always the scoundrels -- the greedy and truthless barter-pirates of the invisible markets, the violent anti-automaton employment activists and their mediaeval dream, the sick privacy perverts who would shroud each life in a cloak of obfuscation and silence if they had their way -- but nobody said this world was perfect.

Myself, I don't complain. I am a free man. I go where I please, and brand for my butter. Earth may not have much in the way of jobs these days, but I don't have much need for a career.

I have never worked a day in my life, and I live like a prince.

You see, when anybody could be subscribing to your feeds at any time, it counts to know what to mention when. And I'm the best: I can drop a hot slogan in a moneyed crowd ten times before the lesser advert-bums even know it's even on the rise. I can cross-market through innuendo, create logo awareness in the dark, bend any conversation toward a paying end...

And then I just kick back and watch the shining credit pile on the screen plink higher as the marketing machines weigh the world and make their decisions, plus or minus, credit or debit, advert or fair use. Plink! "Thank you, Viacom," I say. Plink-plink! "You're too kind, Monsanto."

Yes sir -- it's nothing but the hobo life for me.

* * *

As I come out on deck I shiver at an autumn breeze that is sweeping in over the starboard side of the boat. It smells like burning leaves, and salt. The sun slips out from behind a fast cloud, and the white cruise-ship shines in the suddenly harsh light. I watch silver reflections dance in our churning wake, the Baltic coast withdrawing at a stately pace.

A nomadic waiter: "Can I get you anything, sir?"

"Sure," I say. "I'll have six poached eggs, nine rashers of bacon, challah toast and a dollop of baked beans, also a carafe of freshly-squeezed orange juice, a cup of Mocha Java, black, a cigarette and fellatio."

I squint against the glare. Most of the coastline is wreathed in a dark green fringe of conifers, but a lone jetty has burst into deciduous blossom of reds and golds. As the sun hits the jetty and makes it glow against the grey horizon I begin to wonder if the local tourist office will pick up on any of my video feeds...

I saunter along the rail, back up a few steps, and include in my foreground a young couple holding hands and staring out over the water. The autumnal jetty balances out the right side of the background nicely. It's a perfect postcard.

As I wander lazily away further along the rail, I slip out my plate and key up my accounts. Plink! "Thank you, European Bureau of Tourism and Immigration." I chuckle to myself. Do I know the markets, or what?

I step inside the sun-deck commissary, my bare feet sinking into the plush, warmed carpeting. In the second or two before my aural counter-measures sink in, I hear the rattle and bleat of the ambient muzak. I scan the room for marks, but the place is virtually abandoned. Everyone is on deck watching Riga disappear.

I take up a seat under tall windows overlooking the deck by the turning shadow of the ship's radar armature. I find the rotating shadow soothing, and I'm sure the hypnoid sites are already syndicating the stream. Network mutters in my head, and I turn around.

"Your breakfast, sir," chime three waiters in starched faux-Naval whites, arranging their burdens on my table in a quick, smooth Tango triple-dip. On a planet where the unemployment rate typically runs over forty percent, you tend to get three-hundred percent service from those lucky enough to have jobs. I tap for a generous tip. The waiters are very happy. "Someone will be along to fellate you shortly, sir."

Outside, reclining canvas chairs are being arranged on the sun-deck. The shadow of the radar armature turns and turns. I methodically put away my meal, and read eyelid-news.

* * *

The tables behind me fill up. I adjust my aural counter-measures to stifle the chatter. I smoke a cigarette, and stare out at the blue and silver waves.

The shadows have turned, and now the sun-deck is actually in the sun. No one reclines on the reclining chairs, however, until an unbelievably lithe, pale girl saunters slowly over from the stern. She places her handbag down with strangely careful poise, then gingerly lowers herself into the chair. She moves like an old woman who once studied ballet: deliberate, measured, graceful -- but once settled she is nothing but creamy youth.

My appreciation is interrupted. I am being joined at my table. "Is this seat taken?"

"No. Feel free."

A young man in worn clothes sits down, smiling sheepishly. "I just really wanted a window-seat..." I pick up a faint whiff of body odour, and realise he hasn't bathed in a while. He's a novice hobo, I bet. "Thanks," he says brightly.

"Don't mention it."

"So..." he says conversationally, and I groan inwardly. He's so green he thinks I'm a mark. "Have you been to Stockholm before?"

"Sure." It's more of a noncommittal grunt than a word.

"You know Joergen's, of course," he says, nonchalance feigned artlessly. "I hear the new games parlour has Polyfeel everywhere...ultra retro mood, but with all the latest profiles."

I shake my head in pity. "Look kid, that approach is never going to work. You just cost yourself a couple of pennies phrasing that the way you did." He stares at me blankly, so I continue: "The way you've put it the markines are never going to think you're trying to entice me to visit Joergen's -- they'll think you're trying to impress me with your worldliness, and the score will go against you. It's not fair use."

"You -- you're a hobo, too?" In a quick whisper he adds: "Are you a Sony?"

"Pfizer!" I swear quickly, costing me a credit or two. "Is it just me or are you a little wet behind the ears? You have all the discretion of a farting elephant. You can't earn a living blindly tossing around expensive brand-memes like that. You're playing with fire, kid. Just go back to your home-mall and say whatever it is your demographic is supposed to, and leave skimming the markines to the pros."

"I...don't have a home-mall to go back to," he stammers, looking up to me in appeal. "I lost my job. I was disqualified from support, and I'm not classed for emigration. I don't have any choice."

I sniff dismissively. All the new kids have the same story. "You're pretty clumsy. How did you ever get yourself on this cruise, I wonder..." It isn't really a question -- I'm standing up, dusting the crumbs off my lap. I squinch out my cigarette, and turn to go.

"I was caught in the latest Ingersol-Rand blast, in Riga," says the kid. "Got a coupon."

I sit down again, slowly. "Yeah," I say, remembering. "Me too."

* * *

I remember. I remember stumbling down the leafy terraces from the Ingersol-Rand bar, heading for my hole at the Hotel Nabisco, drunk on wine and slick takings. I am drunk in order to forget that without tonight's takings I am a stone's throw from being out on the low streets, unable to even to afford a new micropile for my fading data-plate. Tomorrow I can read the news, and track the trends, and nail the brands to broadcast. And maybe figure a way out of this jam I'm in, credit-wise.

Several sections of the mall are spread out before me along the east bank of the glistening Daugava, rooves awash with golden light from within. I spit over the edge of the terrace, and let the cold night air lend me the illusion of sobriety. Into the wind I sing:

Hallelujah I'm a bum,
Hallelujah bum again,
Hallelujah give us a hand-out,
To revive us again.

And then, suddenly, network goes quiet. The void leaves me suddenly sick and dizzy.

The three sections of the roof directly beneath me leap into the air, fracturing and dissolving beneath a roiling pimple of black smoke, glowing from within with a lurid light. The terrace rocks beneath my feet an instant before I am blown over by a geyser of hot air and broken dust. Thunder claps, and my ears ring...

I stumble to my feet and grab the twisted railing. I am engulfed in darkness, and at first I think I am inside the plume of smoke -- but I'm not: instead, a gaping quarter of the city has come unpowered. My eyes adjust, and I see the ragged hole blown in the mall.

I think: lucky thing I'm not among the dead. One drink more, and I would've been.

And then I think: too bad I'm not one of the soot-covered survivors. Ingersol-Rand will do anything for them, in order to save face.

The fact that the mall is without power slowly sinks in. No lights, no ventilators, no network, no streaming feeds. It is the strangest moment I have ever known. Until the power comes back on, history is matter of opinion. And who's to say I wasn't caught in the blast?

I blink, and digest. I have been granted a precious, impossible thing: a moment of invention. And he who hesitates is lost!

I lope along the fractured terrace to the edge of the square and let myself carefully over the edge, dropping on the buckled but intact roof of the next dome over from the blast. The air smells like burnt plastic, and I can hear distant sirens in the crisp, night air.

In a moment of pure faith, I sprint to the edge of the hole and leap in.

I land in a field of broken glass, and feel my feet and knees are sliced as I roll and slide in the darkness. Everything is hidden in a haze of acrid smoke. I can hear moans, and gasps, and screams. I move blindly toward these mewling animal noises, finding at last a heap of humanity amid the burning rubble.

I hear diagnostic signals flicker inside my mind, and know that I haven't much time before the sensors woven into my clothing and the clothing of everyone else will reawaken and resume transmitting to network. I squirm beneath the top layer of bodies, heavy and unresponsive. I wedge myself between two that I had taken for dead, but once I'm still I can hear a tiny, weak voice coming from one of them muttering, "Oh god, oh god, oh god..." over and over again.

A minute later the voice trails off, and I smell her bowels loosen in death.

It is another five minutes before I first hear the distant echoes of the soothing, androgynous voice of rescue robots, drawing slowly nearer as they methodically probe the debris for survivors. "You're going be okay," they coo; "Assistance is here. Everything is going to be fine."

And it is. Every retailer in the mall is going to beat a path to our hospital beds, to compete for our forgiveness and loyalty. We are consumers -- the few, the mighty, the proud, the maimed -- and without us they are nothing. We will be gifted something special by the management of Riga, and possibly even the Baltic Corporation itself. As I am strapped to a stretcher by the warmed, soft plastic hands of rescue robots I wonder to myself what prize I will be awarded: an extras-laden stay at a fabulous resort? Free run of a luxury hotel penthouse? A complimentary pleasure cruise?

"You're going to be okay," two robots sing in eerie synchronisation; "Everything is going to be fine."

* * *

And I am. I am fine. I shake myself out the reverie, and feel a heavy, clammy kind of pity for the clumsy kid, the wannabe hobo who actually was caught in the blast. I notice that he's got a fresh tattoo healing on his forearm -- probably couldn't afford to pay the hospital, so they logoed him. Now he'll ever after wear the crescent moon and stars of Proctor & Gamble's benevolence on his sleeve.

"Order yourself breakfast, kid," I say, "it's on me." Nobody needs to witness this promise: network is always listening.

I again catch sight of my sunbathing beauty out on deck through the tall windows, and head outside. I walk against the current through a throng of babbling, pink-faced Germans, and squeeze out of the commissary.

I walk around to the sun-deck. The sun passes behind a cloud, and I shiver in the sudden autumn chill. The thin white girl laid out like a corpse on the canvas chair seems unperturbed, however, and I wonder at this.

A bell tolls. The call to prayer.

I am not a religious man, but it's always best to lay low when everybody else has their head down. Dozens of ship's staff have materialised everywhere, laying down prayer carpets, smiling and pointing the way to Mecca. People pour out of the commissary, blocking my view of the pale girl. Exasperated and impatient, I kneel. "A little to the right," says somebody through network. I nudge to the right. "Thanks," I mutter.

Commercial Islamic Futurism is by no means a very demanding faith -- in most districts just going through the motions is enough to keep you out of trouble. But it can be a nuisance sometimes. Case in point: by the time everybody gets up from prayer the strange girl has disappeared.

The sun-deck is empty.

* * *

It is the late afternoon. I stand by the bar in the third deck lounge, reading an expensive news-layout over another man's shoulder. I admire how the colourful, crystal-clear images on his very showy data-plate can be seen from such a shallow angle, and wonder how much processing power is wasted casting those stupid little holographic shadows across his hands and forearm.

"Another drink, sir?" the bartenders ask in harmonious unison.

"Hit me."

I turn to my own scuffed plate, whose projections lack the vibrance and apparent substance of the rich man's bauble. If I move my head too far to one side the projection smears out in weird perspective, and the colours invert. Still, it serves me well. Even without the expedited syndication of a rich man's subscriptions it would have found the information I need, the tid-bits of market motion that keep me alive.

The playboy might be good for a couple of bucks, but I let him wander away. I've already scored enough today, and my plate shows the markines are thankful. "Plink!" Thank you, DuPont.

I polish off my drink and look around the third deck lounge. It's a late, lazy hour in the afternoon, and the many of the passengers have been lulled to napping by the gentle rumble of the cruise-ship's progress. Corpulent, curving bodies in all manner of garish fashions from all the provinces of Earth are curled in wide, pillowy chairs everywhere I look. Outside the windows the sea passes. The scene makes me feel suddenly lonely.

"Another drink, sir?" the bartenders ask in harmonious unison.

"No thanks."

I choose a nearby chair, and sink into it, my flesh spreading out like pudding. I close my eyes and flit through network, skimming a listing of the top ten feeds.

Children at a birthday party in Mexico City are beating a row of suspended pinatas shaped like erotic cartoon characters, clutching their sides laughing as they wrestle one another to deal the death blow that will spill out the prizes and candy and coupons -- behind them, the twilight sky is a haunting mix of dusty grey and wine red; Meanwhile, in Copenhagen a fifteen-year-old girl from Brussels with curly brown hair is deflowered by a sensitive blonde boyfriend who blanches at the sight of her blood; In Jakarta, a stunning fireworks display lights up clouds of its own smoke; In Istanbul, a taste-testing rally becomes a shoving match; In Beijing, a man on a bicycle has been hit from above by a car...

I flit back to local. I find our cruise-ship, and snap through the available channels listlessly. Nobody is doing or seeing anything interesting. After a few minutes I figure out what I'm really looking for is the pale girl who sunbathes in the cold. Young but feeble, supple but slow -- an enchanted discontinuity in a world of self-same streams of loud, round Earth girls and their familiar vices. The curiosity she awakens in me is far preferable to mulling over the wet guilt of invention reeking in the corner of my mind. Skinny and strange, I find my thoughts drawn to her again and again.

I hunger to meet her. I snap through the ship's channels faster, but I cannot find her feed, or any feed pointing at her. She seems invisible to network.

"What is this girl -- from Mars?" I ask myself. And then it hits me.

She is. Of course she is.

With this filter in mind I find her quickly. She's listed in Cabin P421 as a foreign national under the bizarre name of Zuleika, Sadira Hayfa. She broadcasts no feeds. The ship says she's in the cabin, but I get nothing. When I can't find her on any of the ship's porno-streams, I surmise that she is alone.

Because I am lonely, I wonder if she is.

* * *

All the world's a shop, but the density varies. As I walk into the thick of it signs, songs and mongers compete for my expensive attention. I am crossing the balconied commercial galleria that fills the core the ship, my gaze slipping lazily from one window display to the next. Chocolates, cheeses, perfumes and pets; narcotics, animatronics, lifescans and bling-bling.

All manner of consumer princes waddle the aisles, taking free samples and being trailed by ship's staff or liveried robots carrying their bags. I amble my own generous carcass along, halfway pretending to myself that I am not making directly for Cabin P421. After a while I forget to look at the window displays. I push through the crowd with only a little cruelty.

The air throbs with the syncopated pulses of the hyperChristian clubbers, a clusterfuck of whom are gyrating shamelessly under flashing, coloured lights set up beside the galleria's logo-swaddled fountain. The shining, half-naked teenagers loll and gibber at one another in their trance and funk. An amplified voice implores and cajoles in time to the frenetic beat: "P-P-Prrraise the hyperChrist! P-P-Prrraise the hyperChrist!"

My aural counter-measures won't silence the chanting because they were programmed in Italy, and the laws are different there. Filtering religious content runs against the grain, even if the religion involved is little more than a tax-dodging sex cult. "Hype! Hype! Hyper-Hallelujah: the hyperChrist is lo-o-ve!"

My irritation dwindles as I find myself drawn to a nearby window display. A wide banner with iridescent letters that seem to turn in perspective as I approach proclaims: YOUR FUTURE IS ON ARES. Beneath it turns a giant globe of Mars, red continents fringed with green by bronzen seas, immigration and vacation destinations indicated by glowing dots girdled by lists of key attractions. For a moment I watch the globe turn, mesmerised by the crinkles of mountains I will never know.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" asks the saleslady, her cheeks dimpling as she smiles brightly. She has been made up in Mars chic, but if she were as cosmopolitan as she looked she wouldn't be working an emigration boutique on a cruise. "Thinking of making the big leap soon?"

"I'm not classed for emigration," I say flatly.

"That's not a problem at all," she says, without missing a beat. "Our match-making tours are designed to help you find your unique bridge to citizenship in an Aresu partner. Think about it: you, an Aresu girl, the mists of the springs at Huo Hsing..."

For a moment I am transported. I can see a salmon sky under a yawning plain of rust, with every moment invented. I hesitate at the thought -- balk a moment in dread and morbid fascination for my own blossoming perversity...

But I am a hard man, and not easily fooled. My gut tells me this travel agency whisks poor desperate saps off for lavish vacations in segregated camps, where they are plied from their valuable Terran credits by banquets, spiked neodil and whores. No one gets married, and no one gets to stay. A heartbeat later, network buzzes with rumours of similar scams.

"Not interested," I say, and move on.

At the end of the galleria hall between twin banks of glass elevators is a wide public plate projecting a colourful cut-away display of the ship. At the base of the plate a tall, sickly looking man in outlandish costume is arguing with one of the ship's staff. "Just show me on this map!" the tourist demands, his thick accent mincing the words.

"Sir, if you'll just go through network to the passenger menu --"

"For the last time, you idiot, I don't have network access!"

I recognise the haughty stranger as a Martian, and shake my head. He is every bit the caricature: arrogant, frustrated and lost, unwilling or unable to adapt to civilised ways. An uncouth wildman, from a rough pioneering drudge not featured on the tourist brochures, convinced of his own superiority because his genome is golden.

* * *

Cabin P421. I ring through network, but get no response. I hesitate, and then rap gently on the door with my knuckles. A muffled voice from within: "Who is it?"

I blink. Who is it?

That is the single strangest question I have ever heard in my life.

For a fleeting second, my mind tries of its own accord to fathom a world where people ask questions like "Who is it?" I am drunk and giddy, and cold butterflies whirl behind my sternum. It is terrifying. It is exhilarating. My palms begin to sweat.

"My name is Slimfast," I call awkwardly, not knowing where to look. "I, um, just thought you might appreciate some company."

The pause that follows seems interminable. I flit through network and check that no one is about to turn down this corridor, to witness me squirming at the door of Cabin P421. All clear. Just me and the subscribers.

A click. The door slides away, and I step through the companionway. My eyes sweep across the long, chilly suite, but it takes me a moment to find her, nestled in a blanket on a chair by a vent. Her pale, long face is all that shows above the swaddling, her hair tied and tucked away. She leans her head against the vent as it billows cold air into the room. Her eyes are closed. She wears a tiny throat-mic, ornamented to look like jewellery.

"Have a seat, Mr Slimfast," she says, her actual voice dampened artificially beneath the translation. "You'll have to excuse the translator. I never learned Cantonese English." She opens her eyes, and pierces me. The irises are an impossible shade of indigo.

"Fair enough. I never learned Marsgo." I turn a chair, and sink into it. "Slimfast is my first name, actually. Slimfast Metamucil." I smile sheepishly. "My parents took out a second mortgage to get me that name."

She smiles uncertainly. "I'm Sadira."

"That's a lovely name. What does it represent?"

"I don't know."

There is a pause. After a moment I realise that I have been politely waiting for her to finish her query, but she isn't making one. She's just waiting for me to speak again. She doesn't know what her name means, and network isn't going to tell her.

"This is going to sound...well, adolescent. But I saw you sunbathing in the cold this morning, and I found myself fascinated. It should have dawned on me right away that you're a Martian."

She winces. "Please: Aresu."

"I didn't mean to offend you."

"Of course not. But that term carries unpleasant associations -- baggage from less tolerant times." A bare arm appears from the folds of blanket, hovers over a touchpad on the wall. "Will you take tea, Mr Metamucil?"

"Please, call me Slim."

The tea service extends, and we each take a cup. When I look up from the steaming surface, she is watching me. "The loneliness gnaws, doesn't it?"

"Pardon me?" I pause, mid-sip.

She closes her eyes for a moment, lolls her head back into the stream of chill air from the vent. "Earth people are funny," she sighs cryptically. She opens her eyes and asks in a conversational tone, "What do you do for a living, Slim?"

"I'm a commercial hobo," I hear myself admit. "A brand bum."

"I've heard of it. You don't live anywhere, and you have no career assignment." She searches my face for a moment. "On Ares, we watch foolish romances about brand bums, catching as catch can in the mazes of Old Earth."

"I had no idea."

She chuckles. "Are you the way they always paint the leading men? A cosmopolitan conversationalist with insides tough as diamond?" She sips tea. "When I was a girl I thought I wanted to marry one someday. I dreamed of a life without work assignments, social chores or school."

"Listen here, I subscribed to school just like everybody else," I correct her quickly. "It's the law."

"You needn't be so defensive."

"I just don't want anybody to get the wrong idea."

"Anybody who?"

"Anybody anybody." I gesture vaguely. "Everybody else." Her expression is blank. I explain: "Through network."

"They're...watching us right now?"

"Well, there's almost a billion people on this planet, and God knows how many umpteen-million AIs. I'm sure somebody is picking up some small part of this, yes."

As I watch, she seems to shrink a bit into her wrappings, becoming even more willowy and small in her startled expression of rapt vulnerability. She is at once a child. The blanket has slipped from her shoulder, exposing a tiny, sexless, gravity-defying breast. "But I don't want anyone to find me," she whispers after a long moment. She looks up, and her eyes are brimming with tears. "I've run away."

* * *

Knowing how to play the streams means knowing how to get your meme transmitted. It means having an instinctive knowledge of what environments are conducive to showcasing your content, and what environments clog the pipes with noise and distraction. To use this knowledge in reverse titillates me.

Sadira and I are in the ship's adult bath-house, wrapped in towels, sitting on cool porcelain steps, sipping cold champagne. We are surrounded by a sea of heaving, groping, gyrating nudity, the air suffused with splashes, moans, cries and the sounds of wet meat. We are an isle of stillness at the junction between two pools, and our conversation is essentially private. The thought of this gives me a lascivious thrill, enhanced by the drink.

"Tell me about where you're from," I've asked her.

She tells me about a place called Estercamp, where she grew up. She fondly remembers goats and chickens walking the streets of the camp untethered, congregating near the locks as if drawn to the world out-of-domes, no matter how hostile. She remembers running in the rusty snow, and being punished for killing an ant on purpose, and marvelling at Justice Day fireworks each spring in celebration of the Earth's defeat.

"When I was first rotated for soil recovery, when I was twelve, I knew it right away: I'm not a rural girl." At sixteen she ran away from home, to try to make it as an actress in the big camp. "Your parents didn't look for you?" I ask, incredulous. Imagine, losing an investment like that!

"Of course they did," she says, shrugging. "But there are a lot of ways to lose yourself in Camp Nirgal."

When the theatre did not pan out for her, Sadira experimented with a slew of odd jobs: bartender, library mapper, chimp-sign teacher, road crew...

"Road crew?" I smirk. "No offense, but aren't you a little bit -- dainty, for that kind of work?"

She grabs my arm with sudden and shocking viciousness. "Back home, I wear a Gauge Five Heavysuit. I can break you over my knee." She relaxes her grip, and smiles. "But there's a time and a place for everything."

"You're surprising," I tell her.

"Do you like that?"

"It scares me." I pause. "But I'm liking being scared. So I suppose I do."

She describes a random, directionless chain of passionate reactions to mundane circumstances, a rampage of freedom the likes of which I can barely imagine. She marries an aging university professor, and then leaves him for an adolescent sculptor; she marries a lesbian ant colony engineer, and then leaves her for an ill-tempered, neodil-addicted journalist. It seems unreal to me that there should be a world where a person can make mistake after mistake, and still not end up on the low streets. To Sadira the answer is simple: "There are no low streets on Ares."

"You still haven't told me what it is you're running from," I remind her.

"Isn't it obvious?" She lets her gaze drift over the pawing, panting mounds and folds of flesh at the foot of the steps. "I'm running from the last stage of my life. And I'm running to the next one."

"And what is the next stage?" I ask.

"Who knows?" she shrugs childishly. "Maybe you."

* * *

The call has sounded, and we kneel next to one another in the carpeted elevator lobby. The waning sunlight diffusing through the skylights is ruddy and dull. When prayer is done, I see that Sadira has been watching me. Water from the pools drips from her lashes. "You want to come to Ares," she says simply. "I can see it."

"How can you see it?" I ask as I haul to myself to my feet, squinching my toes in the soft floor. I offer out a hand to help her straighten, but she declines it.

"You Earth-people are fogged," she says, gathering her robe around her. "You spend so long plugged into one another you have no eyes for seeing. You spend so much time chatting with one another you've forgotten how to hear without words." The elevator arrives with a chime and a yawn. We step inside.

"So you're telepathic on Mars, too?" I quip, feeling exposed.

She sniffs dismissively. "Your feelings bleed through your face every time I talk, Slim. The more I say the more I learn about you." I feel a lurch in my belly as the ride plunges downward.

I tell her about the Ingersol-Rand bombing. My throat dry and quaking, I tell about the lie I am living out. I try to release the unbearable weight of my moment of invention, but I do not feel any lighter. She looks at me in pity, and sighs. "Earth is a zoo," she says. To my amazement she seems decidedly...undisgusted. "You have to seize the moment," she adds; "because you never know what's going to happen next."

We turn into the corridor to the portside passenger cabins, and I fight the urge for fantasy to overtake me. As we walk she takes my hand in hers, and against my will I am dreaming of a new kind of destiny for myself. Could this mad woman-child actually transport me away?

Cabin P421. Her thumb releases and door, and we step inside.

The sickness hits me like a sack of rocks. I am reeling sideways through a grey haze, bile rising from my twisting gut. Pain cracks and rumbles in sawing waves across my head, and I stagger into the wall, feeling blind and legless. A cry cuts the air: "Malik!"

I am bewildered and lost. I claw my way up through the blankness, grasping for sensibility. My vision begins to clear, flagged on all sides by throbbing afterimages and swirling sparks. Across the suite, Sadira has been thrown into a glass table, smashing it loudly. Now her voice pleads: "Malik!"

Network is down. My head is quiet, and my sight plain. The lights are out, but the outage must be local because noise of the ship's engines reaches me over Sadira's sobs. A tall shadow stands over her, and I recognise the angry outlander from the galleria. He barks at her in what I can only assume is Marsgo.

He stops suddenly when he sees me struggling to my feet. "Stay where you are!" he yells, pointing a small device in his right hand at my chest. He has used the back of that hand to strike at Sadira, and the skin is red.

His left hand fondles another device -- round, black, featureless.

No network, no subscribers, no witnesses, no help. This Martian animal will be my end. "I'm not making any trouble," I say shakily.

His green eyes are bloodshot and wide. "It doesn't matter. You'll die just the same. You stole Sadira from me, and you're going to have to pay for that, you Earth shit." He backhands me, and I stumble into the wall again. He advances upon me as I slide to the floor, my legs failing.

I become aware that I am going to die like a coward -- momentarily. Malik kicks me savagely in the ribs, and I lose control of my bladder.

He winds back his arm to hit me again, and an expression of shock blooms on his face as Sadira grabs it from behind. She wrenches the arm sideways in one smooth motion, and it breaks loudly. The device drops from his right hand, and I dive after it.

I grab it, and recognise it as a sonic pistol. I turn around like a worm on the floor, training the pistol on Malik. His face is contorted by rage and pain, his body pinned cruelly by Sadira. "Kill him!" she screeches, struggling against Malik's strength. "Kill him now!"

I nod. Sadira jumps aside. Malik bursts.

Breathing raggedly, I help her to her feet. She stumbles and leans into me. Her legs have been sliced by the broken glass, and blood is slipping out between the shards. I lean down to kiss her sweaty brow, but she drops to her knees and begins to paw through the wet remains of Malik. "What the hell are you doing?"

"The dampener...we need to turn off the dampener," she says. I spot the small black device by an overturned chair, and pick it up. "Ah!" she says. "Give it to me."

I run my fingers over its smooth surface, Malik's greasy print still evident on the contact. A dampener! I marvel. A blackout in your pocket...

A banging sounds at the door. Muffled voices shout. Sadira stares at me. "They can't get in -- you need to let the power come back on," she says huskily, clutching her leg.

I consider my urine-soaked pants, and the scene of mayhem around me. Transfixed, my gaze is drawn back to the tiny black dampener. "What happened here?" I hear myself ask airily. What a magical question!

"What do you mean what happened here?" Sadira's eyes are wide and scared.

I lick my lips slowly, fondling the dampener all the while. "What happened here..." I repeat, looking down at Sadira bleeding on the floor. "What happened here is that I tried to save you from him, but I was too late. I killed him, but you were also lost."

"I --" she begins, but her voice fails. The colour drains from her face. The banging against the door is redoubled, and I hear the sound of tools.

"I'm sorry, Sadira," I say, raising the sonic pistol. "But catch as catch can."

* * *

I love Stockholm.

I love the red rooves and the crisp air and the dimpled smiles of the buxom women, each two Martians wide. I love being treated to bubbling drinks and hearty eats, being patted on the back, and being recognised in the street as the hero who killed the rampaging outlander who came to Earth to murder his wayward Aresu floozy.

The nights are cold but the local Ingersol-Rand hotel has a Gap fireplace in every suite. I watch the flames swim upward. Wood pops. I sip my wine, and gently pat the hair of the sleeping room-service girl beside me. I tuck a tip into her camisole, and wander over to the window.

The city glitters. The undersides of the clouds glow dull orange in reflection. In the distance, music warbles and drums strike tinnily. The last voices of evening revelry are dying away as morning threatens the horizon.

I wonder: which block might I make dark?

In the pocket of my monogrammed robe I touch the dampener, ever securely wrapped in a blood-stained handkerchief, ever hidden from the watchful eyes of every thing I own, and everywhere I go. I have memorised every contour of the touch of the device. Gently, sensually, my thumb lingers over the edges of the contact.

Two moments of invention, and I am addicted. Where will I strike next? I giggle quietly to myself, fogging the cold glass. Where next will I replace a slice of public history with cunning private opinion?

Mars on Earth! I will be the hobo king.

Fin.


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